WE Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland - Part Two Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

WE Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland - Part Two

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This entry forms the second part of a three-part series looking at the life of William Gladstone, the religious-minded illustrious politician who dominated British Politics in the 19th Century.

Gladstone in Government

Gladstone was first called upon by Sir Robert Peel to take a Junior Lordship in the Treasury in December 1834. However, following an election, which was called the following month, he was offered the post of Under-Secretary for the Colonies shortly afterwards, as the previous incumbent had failed to retain his seat. His Secretary, Lord Aberdeen, sat in the House of Lords, therefore on colonial matters Gladstone was in charge of in the Commons. However, this spell of office was short-lived as the Government fell in April over the matter of endowments of the Irish Church. Thus, two of the great concerns of Gladstone's life, the Church and Ireland, were to remove him from his first term of office.

In 1841, when Peel returned to power, Gladstone took up the Vice-Presidency of the Board of Trade. It was not a cabinet post which Gladstone was very pleased about. His fellow rising Tory, and later rival, Benjamin Disraeli, wasn't even offered a junior post despite writing to Peel. Peel, however, assured Gladstone that he would be sitting at the table in the Cabinet Room as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

It wasn't too long a wait as two years later he was promoted to President of the Board of Trade and sat for the first time at the cabinet table. In this role, in 1844, he was responsible for the Railway Bill.

His control of the Treasury

The post in government, which Gladstone held most, was as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He served as Chancellor under four Prime Ministers; Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerstone, and Lord Russell. Initially, when he stepped up to Prime Minister he did not trust any other Liberal to maintain the spendthrift policies he had previously brought in his budgets.

He first held the post in 1853 under Lord Aberdeen and started to show his colours as a prudent economist limiting excessive public expenditure and therefore being able to reduce duties both in value and in the range of goods on which these had effect.

However, Gladstone stood adamant on the principle of free trade and harboured long-term ambitions to abolish income tax. Gladstone maintained this determination until the onset of the Crimean War made this impossible. It was then seen as the easiest way to gather the funds needed for the war effort. So income tax has remained with the British ever since, and no subsequent chancellor has ever been anywhere near as able to get rid the tax as Gladstone was on the eve of the Crimean war.

On Aberdeen's death Palmerstone succeeded as Prime Minister and offered Gladstone the chance to continue as Chancellor. Although not able to eradicate income tax, Gladstone did what he could to alleviate the tax burden in other ways. He saw this as being important to encourage the economy to grow and compete on the world stage. He served in this role again for the duration of Palmerston's second administration from 1859-1865.

When he first held the Chancellor's Office, every single change announced in the budget had to be ratified by a separate Bill. This procedure had lead to several revolts in the House of Lords or occasionally the Commons, which had unseated governments. Following one such defeat for Gladstone, on The Paper Bill (1860), the following year he inaugurated a single Finance Bill to cover all the clauses, taxes and so on, mentioned in the budget. This was to deter the Lords from jeopardising the elected house's financial programmes by taking umbrage at one part of it and possibly destabilising the whole system. This innovation of Gladstone's is the means by which government still ratifies its budget today.

The red box that Gladstone used to carry his budget from No 11 Downing Street1 has continued to be used as a ritual box by most chancellor's since. Usually this box has to be carried following it being photographed on the front step before heading to the house with the budget inside.

Gladstone as Prime Minister

The First Gladstone Administration December 1868 - February 1874

There were a number of sweeping changes to occur in Gladstone's first administration, and he spent many long hours drafting speeches and defending his policies at every turn. In the early years he even kept a tight leash on financial policy by remaining Chancellor. As previously stated, the reason for this was that he feared that he couldn't trust any of his liberal colleagues to be as prudent in this role as he had been in previous administrations.

The Second Gladstone Administration April 1880 - June 1885

While in opposition, Gladstone was a very vocal critic of Disraeli's policies, and upon his re-election he set about a number of land and agricultural reforms. However, these reforms were to be overshadowed by the outbreak of the First Boer War in 1881.

The Third Gladstone Administration (January - July 1886)

The entire life, and in the end the fall, of Gladstone's third administration rested on one issue it - the Irish question.

The Fourth Gladstone Administration (August 1892 - March 1894)

At the age of 82 Gladstone was once more returned to the highest elected position in the land. Also at this election the first ever socialist, James Keir Hardie was returned for parliament for Holytown, Lanarkshire. Unknown to Gladstone and the Liberals was the long-term effect this would have in keeping them from holding power for the majority of the 20th Century.

Gladstone was once again to return to the question of Irish Home Rule. He believed the only reason that God had preserved him and kept him active this long was to see this bill finally enacted. So he navigated the Second Home Rule Bill (1892) successfully through the Commons only to be defeated on it in the Lords. As a consequence Gladstone relinquished the premiership and leadership of the Liberal Party in 1894 to Lord Rosebery and retired from public life, standing down at the next election. The Queen didn't offer him a peerage as she knew from their dealings in the past that he wouldn't have accepted it anyway.

1The Chancellor's official residence next to the Prime Minister's.

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